Education, History, Long Read, Recommended

The Drayton Icon and Intellectual Vice

Some attacks are best absorbed, not fended off. Some accusations are best let past, not answered. Life is far too short to slap down every slight, and those of a determined ill will won’t be moved anyway. Besides, too thin a skin betrays a touchy insecurity that suggests the critic’s barbs have found their target.

For those reasons, I have hesitated to respond to Richard Drayton’s essay, “Biggar vs Little Britain: God, War, Union, Brexit and Empire in Twenty-First Century Conservative Ideology,” which was published last month in a collection entitled, Embers of Empire in Brexit Britain.1 His assault is at once morally vicious and rationally weak. Moreover, it displays such an incontinent hostility that it’s doubtful anything I say would make an impression on him or his allies.

Nevertheless, Drayton’s diatribe does reveal something important—not much about me, something about him, but mostly about the vices that fester in certain reaches of our universities, which serve to undermine rational dialogue and public norms of liberal civility. For that reason, I take up the cudgels here.

What Richard Drayton has written seems to have two aims. The first is to achieve some insight into the mentality of the Brexiteers, by treating me as an icon—that is, a particular picture that opens a window onto a much larger reality. As he puts it:

[A] journey into the mind-world of Biggar can help us to understand the larger, and less articulate and visible cultural currents in late twentieth and twenty-first century Britain. It may provide insight into how some of the embers of empire continue to burn, and even to kindle obscure new flames…. The Biggar phenomenon is a sign of the times to which we should pay attention. (pp. 143, 145)

His second aim is to trash the authority of anything I have to say about Britain’s imperial past or future global role, and thereby to expose Brexit as a delusion.

Flattered as I am by the cultural importance Drayton attaches to me, I’m not going to dwell on his Brexit thesis. That’s because I’m unaware of any hard and comprehensive empirical data that substantiates the claim that voters were moved to vote Leave in the June 2016 referendum by “imperial nostalgia.” What’s more, I voted to Remain (just), which ought to be a rather large fly in Drayton’s narrative ointment, but somehow isn’t.2 It’s true that I believe that Britain should continue its imperial tradition of playing a global role, sometimes deploying hard power in faraway places to uphold international order and halt massive atrocities. But that’s a view shared by plenty of Remainers and repudiated by plenty of Leavers. The proposition that imperial nostalgia is a major force behind Brexit just doesn’t stack up.

So, let me turn to Drayton’s attempted trashing and what it reveals. One of its extraordinary features is how very personal it is. He takes an odd, almost obsessive interest in my genealogy, upbringing, and career. It drips with an ugly condescension, choosing to describe my stint as Chaplain of Oriel College, for example, as a “rather snug billet” (p. 145). (Drayton might think an opening salary of £13,000 and responsibility for coping with student suicides and college funerals snug, but others won’t.)

At one point here, his antipathy plainly overreaches itself. The matter itself is trivial, but what it shows is not. In the story he concocts, I was a protégé of the Anglican evangelical theologian, Jim Packer, followed him to Regent College in Vancouver, and was eventually “fixed up” with a post at Latimer House in Oxford, which Packer himself had helped found (p. 145). The insinuation is that I didn’t earn my position; I got it by cosy, uncompetitive, slightly dodgy means. But this story is pure fantasy. I met Packer only once in my life, for an hour in early 1976. I went to Regent College in 1977 and left in 1979, before he had arrived there. I completed my master’s degree for Regent while I was a student at the University of Chicago in 1981. In 1985, I responded to an advertisement for a post at Latimer House, made a formal application, was interviewed, and offered the job. Packer had nothing to do with it; he didn’t “fix up” anything. Drayton’s narrative is simply false.

This is not the only instance of a gratuitously unkind insinuation. Another appears when he notes that I attended Monkton Combe School, and then comments that “Sir Richard Dearlove, best known as Tony Blair’s head of MI6 during the production of the ‘dodgy dossier,’ is another Old Monktonian” (p. 145). What on earth has that got to do with me? It can only be relevant, if the whispered logic is this: Biggar went to Monkton; Dearlove also went to Monkton; Dearlove was dodgy; so is Biggar. Drayton doesn’t say that out loud, of course, but he poisons the air with suggestion.

Drayton makes several more false claims. At one point, he tells us that all but one Oxford historian “has run as quickly and as far as he or she can from Biggar’s ‘Ethics and Empire’ project’” (p. 149). In fact, 25 historians have taken part in the project to date, including four from Cambridge and six from Oxford. The data are available for all to see on the project’s webpage.3 He goes on to say that I avoid anything that might contradict my pro-empire “intuitions” (p. 149), ignoring hostile facts (p. 150). Yet, on the same webpage, which he has clearly read, I am entirely frank about the morally ambiguous record of the British Empire:

In the British case, on the one hand, [empire] presided over the ‘genocide’ of Tasmanian aboriginals in the early 1800s, the Irish Famine in 1845-52, and the massacre of unarmed civilians at Amritsar in 1919. On the other hand, it suppressed the Atlantic and African slave-trades after 1807, granted black Africans the vote in Cape Colony seventeen years before the United States granted it to African Americans, and offered the only centre of armed resistance to European fascism between May 1940 and June 1941.4

And in a Times article in November 2017, I made it clear that I think that their imperial past bequeaths Britons reasons for shame, as well as pride.5

He further claims that I “wittingly or unwittingly, directed the swarm of wasps of right-wing Twitter trolls and Daily Mail columnists to attack the Cambridge lecturer Priyamvada Gopal” (p. 145). Observe the equivocation, “wittingly or unwittingly.” If Drayton had any evidence that I had wittingly directed the trolling, he’d have provided it. But he didn’t, because it doesn’t exist. And as for unwitting direction, how exactly is that supposed to work? I can cause something unwittingly, but I can’t direct it, by definition. So, one part of the claim is groundless and the other part, incoherent. But that didn’t stop Drayton from making it anyway.6

In addition to making malicious insinuations and false claims, Drayton likes to stand on the authority of his own professional expertise. He did this on the only occasion we’ve met—during a 2016 debate in the Oxford Union on the proposition that “Rhodes Must Fall.” At one point he argued that, if he were to presume to offer his opinions on the theology of the eucharist, he, as an historian, wouldn’t deserve to be taken seriously. The implication was clear: that no one should take my view of Rhodes seriously, since I am a mere theologian. My position was that everybody’s opinions deserve to be taken on their merits.

Now, after complaining that I failed to identify him as the Rhodes Professor of Imperial History in a subsequent article,7 he counters that history is not about “views” at all, but about “achieving robust and measured knowledge of the past by the weighing of evidence and interpretations based on deep immersion in contemporary sources and traditions of scholarship” (p. 150). The implication of this is that only professional historians of empire are in a position to speak the truth about the imperial past—and the rest of us should know our place. In one sense that is true, but in another, it’s astonishingly naïve. It’s true that only those who have dug deep into archives or archaeological sites can tell us what the hard, empirical data is. But when it comes to making sense of that data, all manner of anthropological, moral, and political assumptions come into play.8

Strangely enough, Tory historians and Whig historians, pro-Western historians and Marxist historians, interpret the same data differently—because of their conflicting philosophical views. Unfortunately, since historians are not philosophers, they’re not always very good at recognising the extent to which these views shape their reading of the data. Evidently, Drayton is one such historian. What’s more, he doesn’t seem to understand that when it comes to the ethical evaluation of empire, he doesn’t have a professional leg to stand on. As a professional ethicist, I do. Yet if I were to claim a monopoly of wisdom about the ethics of empire, I doubt that he would doff his cap. Nor should he.

So nor will I. Drayton chides me for arguing that Rhodes was not a racist on the basis of “a single account of Rhodes having Zulu friends as a child, and his will’s intention that the Rhodes Scholarships be open to all South African races (by which the old rogue of course meant only Afrikaners as well as English, not Khoisan, Xhosa, Zulu, Malays, Indians, or Chinese)” (p. 149). But, once again, he misrepresents. He fails to mention a third reason, which I gave in my 2016 Standpoint article: namely, that Rhodes did not believe that Africans were destined by biology to be forever culturally inferior and that they could become civilised.9 (Drayton might regard that as racist; I don’t. The difference between us lies not in the historical data, however, but in our ethical views.)

He also neglects to mention two reasons I gave for doubting the conventional interpretation of Rhodes’s stipulation in his will that his scholarships should be awarded without regard for “race”: that by this he meant only the English and the Afrikaners. The first is that, while much of his career had been devoted to fostering reconciliation between the two white races, after the end of the 1896 Matabeleland uprising he told a friend that he intended to turn his attention to building confidence between blacks and whites.10 (As an earnest of this he had already bought back 100,000 acres of prime farming land from white settlers and given much of it to the dispossessed Ndebele. This, presumably, explains why, after Rhodes’ funeral in 1902, the Ndebele leaders agreed to tend his grave—and did so for decades afterwards.11) The second reason is that Rhodes’s will was not drafted in South Africa, where “race,” unqualified, probably would have had the narrower connotation, but in England, where it would not.12

At two further points Drayton derides my use of history. One is where I refer to a moment during the Battle of El Alamein in 1942, when General Montgomery ordered a unit to undertake an operation, even though he knew that it might involve a casualty rate of 100 percent. This, I say, “teaches that a certain kind of professional callousness is a condition of military success.” Drayton comments: “It is quite extraordinary: from a story told about Montgomery by a single historian, Biggar feels able to deduce a truth which can somehow affect ethical thinking in some enduring portable way” (p. 149). But he misunderstands. I’m not deducing a controversial ethical point from a single historical fact—which would be a slender basis indeed. Rather, I’m using a single historical fact to bring to mind a general truth that is obvious once it’s contemplated: that those who carry responsibility—most notably generals in the field, but also hospital surgeons in pre-anaesthetic days and heads of downsizing university departments—sometimes have to make emotionally difficult decisions that they know will expose their own people to grave risk or harm. And in order to make such decisions, they have to thicken their skins—make themselves callous. The historical reference is a revealing illustration, not a deduction.

At the foot of the same page, Drayton takes me to task for appealing “repeatedly” to Peter Hart’s The IRA and its Enemies: Violence and Community in Cork, 1916-1923.13 He complains that I do so “without noting the accusations of academic fraud raised by its critics, nor any alternative histories of that crisis,” and he cites a fine 2018 article by Ian McBride (pp. 149-50 and 155n.50). In fact, I have referred to Hart’s work on just two occasions. In In Defence of War, I used it to illustrate what I take to be another general truth that, once articulated, is obvious—namely, that violent revolutionary movements tend to be populated by young, unattached, and often frustrated males.14 That is not, I think, controversial. Then, in Between Kin and Cosmopolis, I invoked The IRA and its Enemies, in order to substantiate two historical claims: that the behaviour of the British “Black and Tans” during the Republican insurgency had the counter-productive effect of causing most Irish people to transfer their loyalty to nascent Republican institutions; and that the IRA’s campaign of assassination and guerrilla war was “less than scrupulously discriminate.”15 Again, the first claim is not disputed. The dispute focuses on the support that Hart gave the second claim, when he concluded that the killing of Protestants in Dunmanway and the Bandon Valley in April 1922 was driven by “sectarian antagonism … interwoven with political hysteria and local vendettas.”16

What Ian McBride concludes about the controversy over what he call’s Hart’s “brilliant, prize-winning monograph … remarkable for its combination of quantitative as well as qualitative research … [which] was hailed, with much justice, as an instant classic,”17 is this. On the one hand, there is “the obvious and easily substantiated fact that the Bandon Valley killings were not typical of the IRA campaign as a whole.”18 On the other hand:

It is possible that the Bandon Valley killings saw a number of scores impulsively settled at a time when local IRA volunteers were not only free from the control of their commanders but knew there was little prospect of retaliation from crown forces. None of the elaborate disagreements over Hart’s scholarship affects fundamentally his profoundly disenchanted picture of revolutionary violence as “an intimate war,” driven by tit-for-tat cycles, or as directed at unarmed individuals kidnapped or killed near their own homes.19

When all is said and done, then, the only qualification that the controversy over Hart’s work might require of my use of him is the addition of the word “sometimes” to the beginning of my phrase, “less than scrupulously discriminate.” Drayton’s complaint is almost completely irrelevant and amounts to pedantry, not argument.

The truth is that Drayton never really argues at all. He never takes what I actually say and wrestles methodically with its reasons. Instead, he fabricates caricatures that can be brushed aside without further comment. So, for example, he tells us that Biggar makes “an ethical case for torture, or as he prefers to call it, ‘aggressive interrogation’” (pp. 144, 148). But I don’t. On the contrary, I distinguish between torture and aggressive interrogation, and argue that there should be absolute legal right against both, even though there might be a rare case where aggressive interrogation is morally justified.20

Then he reports that I argue “in defence of the killing of wounded combatants on the battlefield as an ethical option (since Afghan rebels have no modern medical care), but against euthanasia within the West, because here we have the means to cure and relieve pain” (p. 144). But this fumbles the exact point, implying that my distinction is between medically primitive Afghanistan and the medically sophisticated West, and hinting that it is racist. However, the distinction I actually make is between uncivil conditions and civil ones: what may be permitted in the extra-ordinary, uncivil conditions of war should not be normalised in the civil conditions of peacetime.

On another occasion, Drayton, noting that I was born just fifty miles west of the birthplace of Thomas Carlyle, asserts that:

Biggar’s … pro-empire violence apologetics, and his closely linked “just war” arguments and justifications for torture, are certainly in continuity with how Carlyle … found fine words to defend the brutal repression of the Morant Bay Rebellion in Jamaica in 1865 when British troops killed 439 people, flogged hundreds with cat-o-nine tails made up mostly of brass piano wire, killed pregnant women, even smashed babies’ heads. (p. 148)

While his footnotes suggest that he has read my book on “just war” reasoning (pp. 152n.6, 155n.50), he has somehow managed not to grasp a basic and familiar point—namely, that, to be morally justified, violence has to satisfy two criteria: proportionality and discrimination. No matter who is being violent, be they imperial troops or anti-imperial rebels, everyone is subject to the same requirements. From the description given, it seems quite clear that the conduct of British troops in Jamaica in 1865 was ethically indefensible.

Finally, Drayton takes what I’ve written about the duty of national loyalty and accuses me of being “untroubled by the risk that a love of kin can become a kind of idolatry” (147). Yet, I have always been unequivocal in saying that no nation-state is eternal or divine, and that none deserves absolute loyalty; and I have described both Romantic nationalism in general, and Scottish nationalism in particular, as idolatrous.21 I have also made crystal clear that, in my view, national loyalty is limited and qualified by obligations to other peoples.22 Nevertheless, here as elsewhere, Drayton seems unable to hear what I have said loud and clear on many occasions. He reads, but he doesn’t comprehend.

I think I’ve now done enough to show what I think of Richard Drayton’s attempted critique of me and my work, and why I think it. It’s of little value for what it says about me. It’s more important for what it shows about him. But it’s most important for what it reveals, through him, about the ethos that prevails in certain reaches of the academic world. As we’ve seen, Drayton’s thinking has taken the form of a false interpretation of data, several gratuitous and malicious ad hominem insinuations, a host of misrepresentations, the pulling of professional rank, irrelevant pedantry, distorting caricatures, and a complete failure to engage carefully and rationally with what I actually say. Thereby, it has given expression to the following intellectual vices: carelessness, injustice, uncharity, hubris, and evasiveness. Evidently, these are motivated by a zealous political hostility that so possesses him as to rob him of reason and scruple. This zeal will not brook contradiction; it won’t entertain the possibility that it might be mistaken. So instead of letting a contrary position stand, observing it carefully, doing it justice, and letting it provoke thought—which risks giving rise to doubt—it has to be manhandled into the shape of a risible straw-man to be brushed aside with ease.

Now, it might be that “Biggar vs Little Britain” is a unique lapse. It might be that Richard Drayton is normally the very model of responsible academic behaviour, and that it’s only something about me that causes him to lose his rag. This is possible but unlikely. After all, the root of the problem appears to lie in his moral-political convictions, which, so long as he has held them, are bound to have shaped his interpretation of historical data throughout his career. It’s more likely that Drayton’s vices have been indulged, and even applauded, by those teaching him, appointing him, managing him, and awarding him prizes—at Harvard, Oxford, Yale, Cambridge, the University of Virginia, and now King’s College London. Certainly, those same vices have been displayed in the behaviour of several of his Oxbridge and London allies, as I have consistently experienced them since the row over “Ethics and Empire” first broke out in December 2017.23 So, no, Richard Drayton is not an isolated case. He opens a particular window onto a much more general problem. He, too, is an icon.

The problem that Drayton illustrates, however, is not just narrowly academic, but more broadly public. For sure, the intellectual vices that he and his allies exhibit destroy the possibility of fruitful dialogue with academic colleagues like me. For no useful purpose can be served by trying to converse with people, whose objections are unconstrained by the basic rules of civility, who will not listen, who can’t do justice, and who are too insecure to risk thought. Under those conditions, to attempt communication merely invites heat, not light.

But much, much worse are the wider, public ramifications. This is because generations of students who pass through the zealous hands of Drayton and his ilk will be rewarded for sharing their prejudices and imitating their vices. And then today’s students will become tomorrow’s citizens, voters, journalists, MPs, and political leaders. So, if we care about the future of rational public discourse among us, and if we care to keep political conflict within civilised bounds, then we should start to worry about the illiberal likes of the Rhodes Professor of Imperial History. And we should start to ask university leaders to justify their rewarding and promoting—and funders, their supporting—politically corrosive intellectual vice that harms us all.

 

Nigel Biggar is Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology and director of the ‘Ethics and Empire’ project at the University of Oxford. You can follow him on Twitter @NigelBiggar

Notes and References:

1 S. Ward and A. Rasch, eds, Embers of Empire in Brexit Britain (London: Bloomsbury, 2019). Drayton is Rhodes Professor of Imperial History is at King’s College London. 
2 Drayton claims that my 2016 blog, “The Nation-State and the Case for Remaining in the EU,” comprised an argument for leaving the EU (p. 147). (No longer available at its original address, most of it is reported here: https://semipartisansam.com/2016/06/13/a-strong-christian-case-for-the-nation-state-and-against-the-european-union [accessed 17 August 2019]). But he is wrong, as the concluding two sentences make perfectly clear: “There may well be good reasons for Britain to remain in the EU But if that is so, the unchristian nature, or the obsolescence, of the nation-state is not one of them.”
3 To be scrupulously fair to Drayton, not all the data now publicly available had been posted online when Embers of Empire went to press. Still, had he been a more careful historian, he would not have relied on online data. He would have emailed me to confirm his web-based perception. Had he done so, I would happily have corrected it. But he didn’t.
4 In “Biggar vs Little Britain,” Drayton slaps my wrists for the “schoolboy error” of confusing the date of the abolition of slavery in the British Empire (1833) with that of the abolition of the slave trade (1807) (p. 149). He is, of course, quite right and the date has been corrected. 
5 Unfortunately, the copy-editor’s title obscured this: “Don’t Feel Guilty about our Colonial History,” The Times, 30 November 2017.
6 Drayton omits to mention why Dr Priyamvada Gopal became the object of criticism—namely, her vituperative online abuse of anyone who doesn’t share her view of (British) Empire as essentially racist and violent, together with her explicit attempt to have my “Ethics and Empire” project “shut down.” (See Nigel Biggar, “‘Ethics and Empire’ and Free Speech—Some Home Truths,” Oxford Magazine, Noughth Week, Hilary Term 2018, p. 4). Nor does he mention his own part in that attempt as a signatory of the intentionally repressive “Collective statement on ‘Ethics and Empire‘” (21 December 2017). I describe this as “intentionally repressive” for the following reasons: (i) the statement was addressed, not to me, but to my university; (ii) it did not intend to inaugurate rational dialogue, since only one the 200 signatories (not Drayton) has made any overture in such a direction in the 20 months since; (iii) instead, the statement was entirely focused on attacking the University’s support of my project, the word “support” appearing five times; and (iv) Gopal’s name appears right at the top of the five leading signatories, out of alphabetical order, implying that she was the statement’s prime mover.
7 Instead, I described him as “an historian of Africa.” That was a mistake. I overestimated his relevant authority: as far as I can tell, he has no special expertise in the biography of Cecil Rhodes or the history of the British Empire in South Africa.
8 This, I take it, is essentially the point that the historian Jeremy Black makes: “Drayton is at pains to tell us that he is a professor and that, as Biggar is no historian, his views are of limited value. That might well be the case if we were speaking of Rankean-style source criticism, but that is not the case here (“Academics Should Look in the Mirror before Smearing Rivals,” The Article, 19 August 2019). 
9 Nigel Biggar, “Rhodes, Race and the Abuse of History,” Standpoint (March 2016), pp. 40-1.
10 Ibid., p. 42.
11 Ibid., p. 44; Paul Maylam, The Cult of Rhodes: Remembering an imperialist in Africa (Cape Town: David Philip, 2005), p. 37.
12 Biggar, “Rhodes, Race and the Abuse of History,” p. 42.
13 Peter Hart, The IRA and its Enemies: Violence and Community in Cork, 1916-1923 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).
14 Nigel Biggar, In Defence of War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 46n.141. I could just as easily have grounded the same point in Lawrence James’s account of Indian terrorism in 1906-7 in Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India (London: Abacus, 1997), p. 426: “Often, as in the IRA today, the typical terrorist was a youth whose ambitions outstripped his capacities and education. Entering the secret brotherhood of the terrorists was an escape from the boredom and frustration of an unfulfilled life into a world full of excitement and risks, in which he enjoyed considerable power, even adulation…. Political terrorism … attracted plenty of failed university graduates and ill-taught pupils from indifferent schools who had drifted from job to job, succeeding in none.”
15 Nigel Biggar, Between Kin and Cosmopolis: An Ethic of the Nation (Cambridge: James Clarke, 2014), pp. 94n.49, 95n.51.
16 Hart, The I.R.A. and its Enemies, p. 288.
17 Ian McBride, “The Peter Hart Affair in Perspective: History, Ideology, and the Irish Revolution,” The Historical Journal, 61/1 (2018), pp. 249, 269, 271.
18 Ibid., p. 253.
19 Ibid., p. 270.
20 Nigel Biggar, “Individual Rights versus Common Security? Christian Moral Reasoning about Torture,” Studies in Christian Ethics, 27/1 (2014), pp. 3, 20; “Imprudent Jurisprudence? Human Rights and Moral Contingency,” Journal of Law and Religion, 30/3 (October 2015), pp. 397-8, 401. 
21 Nigel Biggar, Between Kin and Cosmopolis: An Ethic of the Nation (Cambridge: James Clarke, 2014), pp. 7-8, 9; “Scottish Independence Seems Like a False God,” Church Times, 5 September 2014 (accessed 19 August 2019).
22 Biggar, Between Kin and Cosmopolis, pp. 13-17, and Chapter 3.

23 See the online “Open Letter from Oxford Scholars” denouncing my “Ethics and Empire” project (19 December 2017), which was led by Dr James McDougall, Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at the University of Oxford, and my responses in the Times on 23 December 2017 and in the Oxford Magazine in January 2018. For my documentation of the abusive and repressive conduct of Dr Priyamvada Gopal, Reader in Anglophone and Related Literature at the University of Cambridge, see note 5 above. To these two examples, we can now add a third, Dr Kim Wagner, Senior Lecturer in British Imperial History at Queen Mary’s University London. On 15 March 2019 Wagner responded to an intelligent and mildly critical review by Dr Zareer Masani, by tweeting this: “Zareer Masani is what happens when your senile grandad escapes from the old people’s home and gets mistaken for a historian. And then gets to write a book-review.” When Masani told him that he’d reported him to the police, Wagner issued an unqualified apology (19 March 2019), but has since refused to speak on the same platform.

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Comments

  1. I couldn’t ffinish this article.

    The thrust of it was that an article criticising the author’s views instead of focussing on teh srticles focussed on the author unfairly and unreasonably and thatthe autjor of the article is therefore a bad person.

    I am sure this dispute matters a great deal to the two people concerned but why does it mattter to anyone else? Why publicise a squabble between quarelling academics?

  2. I think it’s important because it’s indicative of a greater trend of analysing information through an ideological lens so common in the ‘soft’ fields. The good thing is that this narrative of white patriarchal oppressors, oppressing everyone else is so easily defeated. I make no apologies for the British Empire, which was incidentally brutal in it’s suppressions, flawed in it’s thinking and venal in it’s defence of its interests because that was the case for every single culture, at every single time in human history, prior to the enlightenment. There never was an instance of the noble savage, because the conditions for nobility only occur once one has escaped the conditions of depravity that unremitting desperate poverty and constant near starvation bring.

    Of all the cultures of the world it was only the rare island of plenty that fostered benign human interactions- only China, India and briefly Islam that managed to build stilts, to at least partially escape the squalor and degradation of the pre-industrial human condition, and then only for selected classes. The history of world is one of war, atrocity, man’s (and woman’s) inhumanity to man, starvation, brutality and death- for the longest time the only escape from the plagues of Pandora’s Box was an escape into Art, Music and Beauty or in fervent prayers imagining a better world.

    And when we came upon the happy conjunction of ideas that constituted the Enlightenment, it was as the blind man stumbling around in the dark. Pure luck, more than anything else overthrew the absolute monopoly on truth that the church held, and the absolute tyranny over sovereignty that rulers held, in order for us be free enough to formulate the market and the scientific method. But the transformation wasn’t instant, we did not suddenly become better people, free from the awful necessity to rob, conquer and kill, just to survive. The very technologies that our newfound liberation of the mind allowed, also enabled us to conquer, occupy and enslave like never before- with Western Civilisation acting, as Eric Weinstein puts it, as an amplifier to all the worst traits that every culture and civilisation possessed.

    It’s only now, as we look back, with the Enlightenment transformation that our ancestors earned for us and the vast majority of the rest of humanity, that we have the luxury of looking back with scorn, in possession, or possessed by, some unearned guilt. We can now even put a price upon the amount of income a country has to earn per citizen to reach a certain threshold. Apparently the citizens of countries begin to care about the environment once their income exceeds five thousand dollars per year.

    Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe that Malow’s triangle represents a hierarchy of ascending morality. But I do believe that once one escapes the terrible necessity of circumstance, progress can be made. Plus, it’s important to remember that our forebears were lied to routinely, and lied to themselves just as much as the modern socialist or intersectional thinker. It is, after all, the very act of fervently believing oneself to be a champion for good, that permits all manner of atrocities to be committed in the cause of a perfect world that never comes, when true good only ever comes in finding the flawed humanity in others wherever it is to be found, even in the past.

  3. I did finish the article, as well as Richard Drayton’s essay, linked above.

    I think it’s useful as a future reference. Someone may, several years from now, wish to do a Google search on Richard Drayton. Not so much to locate other things that he has written, but to find out what other people have written about him; his public reputation.

    It’s the sort of thing that I do, anyway, which is why I followed the link. To judge for myself whether Drayton had been doing what Biggar says he’d been doing.

    Drayton’s article is pretty nasty, all right. I feel like I got a pretty good insight into some part of Drayton’s character by closely reading it, and I flatter myself that I read it without having my perception colored by Biggar’s complaint, which I did read first.

    My take on Drayton’s article is that Biggar has him pegged pretty well. I agree that it is primarily an attack on those who voted, and continue to campaign for, Brexit (with Biggar being a convenient goat), undermining the reputation of those who articulate the argument for Brexit and so, hopefully, shaking the confidence of the proles who voted in favor, as Biggar argues.

    Biggar’s article here is indeed defensive, but if one defends oneself from an unjust attack, how else can one be, but defensive? And it is important to publicly defend oneself, at least often enough so that those who attack must be aware that there may be a vigorous defense in response.

    (Edited for spelling.)

  4. Priyamvada Gopal, Richard Drayton and other left wing academics give the game away with their antics. Why do the pound the table at the drop of a hat? Why do they resort to slander and ad hominem, when facing colleagues who disagree with them?
    Because their arguments are shitte. They don’t withstand fact checking, comparison or basic logic. So they flip out when challenged.
    In addition it seems that left wing academics put all their self worth into their activism, so that if their activism is questionable it leads immediately to an existential crisis - who am I, what do I mean.

    They need to be refuted because in academia accusations require response, but really they are pathetic. Wait until we tell the Indian Marxist economists that their 45 trillion extracted by England idea is a physical impossibility and thus a malicious fantasy.

  5. The article is important for setting the record straight. Indeed it is worrying that activist charlatans have been allowed to take up such positions in academia. It is also sickening to see how many academics consider it legitimate to indulge in their wildest fantasies about how evil all brexiteers must be.

    The hatred expressed against the majority of people in the UK, who simply expressed their legal right to vote, needs to stop.
    The demonisation of the pro-brexit majority resembles that of witches in the Malleus Maleficarum. There is an army of journalists and academics who indulge in a strange fetish of imagining various forms of mental deviancy and then attributing them to normal people who just made a choice. It is sickening.

    Since Brexit wasn’t properly discussed in the article, here’s a thought. I will argue that the EU has major similarities to the British empire. My main argument is that the British empire arose from the need for Britain to get an export market for its manufactured goods. Today, Germany needs an export market for its goods, which is why the single market and the eurozone have been set up for its benefit. Now, is the EU moving towards a nation state or an empire? How do we tell? My answer is that the key difference is that in a modern nation-state, people from the wealthy parts share the burden of paying for the welfare of the economically weaker parts. Thus for instance, the fact that Scotland represents around half of the UK budget deficit despite being only 10% of population is a sign of a nation state (in fact people in Scotland get even more benefits than their English brethren, which takes it to a whole new level).

    Now, is the EU a proto nation or an empire? The truth has been revealed in the last Eurozone crisis, where it became clear that the bailouts to Greece were primarily to bail out French and German banks who had made bad loans, and that it was Greek taxpayers who would pay. For Cyprus, the EU decided that all normal savings accounts would get a financial haircut, i.e. quite literally taking money out of ordinary citizens accounts. I seriously recommend reading Joseph Stiglitz book The Euro to get the full details. It is clear that the EU, primarily at Germany’s insistence, has no intention of giving the same rights and protections to the citizens of the weaker countries as those of the richer ones. This is why I believe calling the EU an empire is richly deserved.

    Now, British people today are more directly descendents of those who brought the empire to a mostly peaceful end than they are of those who built it. People can tell the EU is an empire, and in many ways resembles the British empire. It is then perfectly reasonable for people to vote leave out of a desire to avoid participating in yet another empire. Contrary to what is claimed by these British-hating academics, a disdain for imperialism is in fact an argument to leave the EU.

  6. I was and am a Remainer, but I am sickened by the vicious mischaracterisations bandied by cosmopolitan liberals about Brexiteers. My main reason for voting Remain, was because of specific knowledge I had from working in manufacturing, and how reliant vertically integrated products are on just in time supply chains- but this is no excuse for the pure vitriol and bile the establishment institutions have been pouring on people who are often, but not always, far less fortunate than them. To my shame, at one point I got somewhat inebriated down my local pub shortly before Brexit, and said some rather unkind things to a Brexit supporter- but at least I have the good sense now to realise that I was in the wrong for my lack of civility. What was the old saying- no religion, no philosophy, no politics?

    What the cultural elites and the nations of the West are struggle to deal with is the fact that two people with similar levels of ability can read the same information and come to entirely different conclusions based on the psychology of their moral foundations. I had of course heard of confirmation bias, but reading Jonathan Haidt’s ‘The Righteous Mind’ just over a year ago, was a revelation to me. To the psychological liberal national pride, sovereignty and Western cultural identity are irrelevancies at best, and at worst to be abhorred, for the psychological conservative the lack of these selfsame things is dystopia.

    As a country, I don’t know where we go from here. Regardless of the outcome, roughly half of the population will end up deeply resenting the other. Because although cosmopolitan liberals are still stuck in the cognitive rut of arguing about Brexit in purely economic terms, the cultural undertones that frame their arguments are just as present, if more veiled. They honestly believe and aspire to a world without borders and countries, in which humanity is one happy family. The fact that outside of Western Educated Industrialised Rich and Democratic circles this idea is anathema, simply hasn’t occurred to them. Migrants come to the wealthier nations for opportunity, not because they want to immerse themselves in rich and vibrant diversity- it’s why they universally form the types of socially cohesive, exclusive communities that help them negotiate their new environment, by clinging to the familiar- in this they have more in common with psychological conservatives than they ever will with liberals.

  7. Admitting your past mistakes does you credit - unlike some I don’t think that one mistake damns you forever. I also was a remainer, mostly because prior to 2016 I just hadn’t really given any thought to the possibility of exiting the EU, and I assumed like many that remain would win by a landslide. I’ve never had an argument with a brexiteer because I don’t know any. But I think the referendum was fair and I hope they just get on with it. I’m appalled at the rebel MPs like Grieve, Bercow, and co. who think they have some divine right to overturn democracy. I fear that if they have their way, then any future vote won’t count for anything as MPs will have learned that they can do whatever they please. As I see it, if we don’t leave on October 31st then I will be mourning democracy. Or maybe we never truly had it in the first place, it’s hard to tell.

    As for the way forward, I think that as time goes on and as life moves forward, most of the lies from the remain side concerning economic meltdown will be exposed, and they will lose a lot of support. I guess some will campaign for rejoining, and that is their right, but that seems a lost cause. Sensible people who value their sanity will move on and make the most of it. The twatterati classes won’t change, but they’ll notice that their audience will grow thinner with time.

    Ultimately, I think the whole episode has exposed the weaknesses in our democracy. Yet it makes me optimistic because I do think we are seeing overall a broad movement towards increased democracy. In particular, I would be in favour of an explicitly written constitution which sets out exactly who has which powers. We really do need to make the rules crystal clear and to avoid a repeat of the dangerous partisan turns started by John Bercow. This will have to include various punitive aspects to those who break the rules. We also need new rules on getting rid of MPs who betray their party and their voters, as shown by the case of Dominic Grieve, who having lost a vote of no confidence in March, has refused to stand down and now has the gall to call for a vote of no confidence in the PM. A second example is with the Tory MPs who received votes on the basis of the Conservative manifesto and then turned tails to join the Liberal Democrats. It is insane that any system should allow them to keep their seats as MP, but that is how it is today.

    Another issue is criminality among MPs. It is stunning just how many (mostly Labour) MPs been involved in criminal activities. Just a few examples off the top of my head are Fiona Onasanya and Jared O’Mara (suspected but not yet charged), and, for fairness there’s also Charlie Elphick from the Tories. I’m sure the criminal rate in parliament is currently higher than the national average, expenses notwithstanding.

    The parties themselves need deep reform. It is clear the Tories need to clean out those who have been all to willing to renege their promises by voting against their own manifesto, as it has been paralysing the country for three years. Clearly Hammond, Gauke and their ilk must be kicked out. The Tories have to become the party for Brexit and Beyond, otherwise they will forever have the sword of Nigel Damocles Farage above their heads, which is costing them seats as in the case of Peterborough. They will need to also keep to the centre left ground they currently occupy, which seems to be Boris’ plan with his program on the NHS and structural investment in the North.

    Finally, something has to be done about the civil service. It’s clear that some, but not all, civil servants believe they are enlightened few and feel they have a right to set policy. This is a tricky one because it’s could easily go to far and government needs a functioning civil service, but I think it needs to be made clear to them where they stand and what are the limits to their job description. A good place would be to kick out Mark Carney without a knighthood.

    Likewise, Labour needs to plan for a future beyond Corbyn and McDonnell, although I fear that Labour is entirely a lost cause at this point and will never get over its anti-semitic anti-British hard left core. It’s for the decent subset of Labour to split and make a new party.

    As for internationalism, we also need to make it a constitutional rule that no government has the right to surrender any aspect of our national sovereignty without explicit consent from the people. It is for the internationalists to prove the merit of their ideas to the people, not the other way round.

    Who knows if this will happen, but I think with these changes we can end up in a better place than where we are now.

  8. I think there is also a broader cultural need to realise that in some ways, people can be fundamentally different. It seems to me that the differences between psychological conservatives and psychological liberals are every bit as profound, at their polar extremities, as differences in sexuality. In many ways, this divergence is more critical than sexuality, in that sexuality only governs who you will be attracted to, whilst your moral foundations and openness to experience will determine how you view the world. Liberals need to understand that conservatives are most comfortable with the familiar, and to deprive them of it is consign the world they love to a place that can only be visited fondly in memory. Liberals might think they can and should adjust, but all the social data shows that this simply doesn’t happen.

    Otherwise, we end up creating a dystopia for a significant portion of the population- either a monoculture, the bane of liberals; or multiculturalism, a hell for conservatives. I don’t exactly what a balanced formulation would entail- as someone with high trait openness, I obviously have my own preferences and prejudices and am never happier than when sitting in cafe in Sorrento, sipping espresso, watching the world go by and contemplating dinner- but I think it needs to start with compassion and the realisation that the love of the new that liberals take for granted, simply can’t be taught or leaned- for many, the loss of the familiar represents a world in which they can never be anything other than uncomfortable.

  9. I agree about the need for people to realise that not everyone can be the same, and nor should they. I can’t answer the whole of your question, but I think a good place to start would be a return to civil discourse and also an emphasis on respecting the results of democratic votes.

    Where I have a possibly different perspective from you is that I don’t see Haidt’s liberal/conservative separation as being particularly relevant to the specific issue of Brexit. I like his book for sure, but I think you can find many people of either value set taking up positions for or against Brexit. This is why it has cut across party affiliations so strongly. In fact in my circles, the ones who are the most vocal remainers are the ones who feel the most threatened by challenges to the orthodoxy and who are also the most likely to support enforced homogeneity. According to Haidt’s criteria that would place them more as conservative than liberal.

  10. I think the key test is whether when you’re on holiday as a Brit, you prefer to sample the local cuisine or want fish and chips- if you prefer the latter, then I would guess you are a psychological conservative, regardless of political ideology.

  11. Well, speaking only for myself, after living in France for 20 years before returning to the UK, I can say that I enjoy both fish and chips and also a little foie gras or a magret de canard. I’m also enclined to try to reproduce at home the best dishes I’ve come across on holiday. My test for a psychological conservative would actually be to ask them what they think of English sparkling wine, before and after a blind taste. Some of the recent vintages have been beating French champagnes at major blind tasting competitions, yet some of my acquaintances, who usually like to pose as world citizens, view it with disdain, which in my books would make them the psychological conservatives who can’t tolerate any changes to the orthodoxy that champagne is best.

  12. Geary
    It seems to me that the very top of the establishment supported Leave (The Speccie being its mouthpiece).
    But that part that didn’t represents the old wets, who had control of things before Thatcher and who have never gone away.
    These are the sort of people who want power but are fearful of responsibility. The EU was perfect for them, because it allowed them to cede more and more responssibilty to Brussels. That was the real backstop, passing the ultimate responsibility to the bureaucrats in Brussels.
    The remainers in politics are suffering from the old British diseae of the 60s and 70s, a fear of actually having to make decisions for themselves without anyone to blame if all goes pear-shaped. They want an easy life that doesn’t require any balls.

  13. I hate to be the 13th comment, so I will add that there is really no truth in the idea that trade will be severely effected by Brexit

  14. Many on the left are psychological conservatives and many on the right are pschological liberals.
    Or to put it another way, one can be conservative in the big matters and still open to change and innovation in smaller things.
    I got stuck at lunch once in Morroco with a table of American liberals who wanted to change the world, but who didn’t know what a tagine was and were frightened of foreign food.

  15. It depends what industry you’re in. Many exporters will be fine, better even. There is likely to be an increase in costs for people living in the UK, because of currency- it will raise prices through the import channel. But for manufacturing, you have to realise that many manufacturers, specifically the car industry (but also others), located to the UK because it was a relatively low cost economy, with little of the regulatory constraints or union problems common to much of Europe (especially France), that also had no tariff or trade barriers to the European market. Also any complex manufactured product, that relies on the low-cost supply of parts and JIT deliveries from the rest of Europe, is likely to be hit.

    On the bureaucracy front, I could not agree more. The UK government will finally have to take responsibility for many of the bureaucratic nonsenses that plague UK citizens lives. They will finally have to explain- no, that’s our regulation, or no, we’re keeping that one because we want to be able to export to the rest of the world.

    I also think that are a lot of the changes that some members of the public will be expecting, will fail to materialise. The limits on working hours a week, from the Working Time Directive, are likely to largely remain in place, because the NHS simply can’t afford the disproportionate burden people working over 47.5 hours a week place on any public or private healthcare system. Environmental legislation is unlikely to change, because the various alternate indices, such as the SPI, have long since proven to governments that these things matter, because they affect trade and diplomacy.

    The tangine story is hilarious. My brother were once in Sorrento and an American couple were walking behind us. The woman couldn’t get why all the shops were closed at that time of day- her exact words were ‘Why don’t they do it like we do in America’. My brother had been nagged by a mate to bring back a big bottle of spirit- so he bought the smallest bottle he could find in a little shop that was open (as well as a big bottle). The American couple had followed us in- and the wife asked the husband, why my bro was buying the smallest bottle. This was the point at which he turned to her in a muffled voice, and told her to ‘shut up!’. Bet it was an interesting conversation when they got back to their hotel.

    North African food is amazing, by the way. I once had baby squid in a mini-tangine dish in a North African restaurant in Cyprus, and it was delicious.

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